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What does Native American jewelry symbolize?

What does Native American jewelry symbolize?

Native American jewelry holds deep symbolic meaning for the indigenous peoples of North America. Each piece tells a story, conveys a message, or represents tribal identity. Jewelry crafted from materials such as turquoise, silver, shell, and beads embodies cultural values, spiritual beliefs, and important traditions. For centuries, Native American jewelry has been an integral part of tribal culture and heritage. Understanding the symbolism behind different types of Native American jewelry provides insight into the worldviews and customs of America’s first peoples.

Materials and Their Meanings

The materials used to create Native American jewelry are often imbued with symbolic significance:

Turquoise – A popular stone used in Native American jewelry, turquoise symbolizes life, strength, protection, and luck. The striking blue-green color is thought to connect wearers to the spirit realm and the life-giving forces of water and sky. Turquoise is mined in the Southwest, making it culturally important to tribes like the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi.

Silver – Silver represents clarity, illumination, purification, and vision. Due to its luminescent qualities, silver is linked to the moon. It adorns jewelry believed to have healing and protective powers. Silver also indicates wealth and status among Southwest tribes who have access to substantial silver deposits.

Coral – Coral holds deep meaning for Southwestern tribes like the Navajo, Pueblo, and Zuni. It signifies life, longevity, and blood/life force. Red coral is especially symbolic of warriors and healing.

Shell – Seashells and mother of pearl symbolize fertility, birth, and feminine power. Coastal tribes like the Navajo and Zuni incorporate shell into jewelry, believing it helps promote harmonious relationships.

Lapis lazuli – With its stunning blue hue, lapis lazuli represents wisdom, truth, and vision. It is thought to provide insight and strengthen psychic abilities.

Beads – Colorful glass trade beads arrived in North America with European traders. Native artisans incorporated these beads into jewelry with coded meanings. For example, blue beads signified friendship, while red ones warded off evil.

Types of Jewelry

Different types of Native American jewelry hold unique symbolic meaning:

Bracelets – Worn around the wrist, bracelets represent the unbreakable circle of life. Bracelets protect the vulnerable pulse point. Some tribes like the Navajo make silver cuff bracelets representing strength and durability.

Necklaces – Often constructed of layered beads or pendants, necklaces lie close to the heart. They express spirituality, values, and connections to loved ones. Bold chokers embody tribal identity. Shell necklaces symbolize femininity, while bear claw necklaces convey courage and leadership.

Rings – Circular like bracelets, rings represent the eternal cycle of life and seasons. Rings demonstrate commitments, covenants, and continual love when exchanged as gifts. Turquoise rings are especially meaningful, safeguarding and guiding the wearer.

Earrings – Earrings contain imagery and symbols important to Native identity. Chandelier earrings reflect status and wealth. Hoop earrings represent strength and community, connecting the wearer to the sacred hoop/circle of life.

Pins – Decorative pins and brooches have long held significance as tokens of belonging, rank, and commemoration. Pins featuring symbols like arrows and lightning bolts denote protection. Elaborate silver pins indicate social standing.

Belt buckles – Large silver belt buckles and concho belts identify warriors and leaders. They signal strength, valor, and authority. Jeweled buckles demonstrate wealth and achievement.

Hair accessories – Beaded barrettes, hair ties, and headbands contain ancestral patterns and designs, keeping tribal heritage close.

Animal Motifs & Meanings

Animal symbols frequently appear in Native American jewelry, connecting the wearer to sacred creatures and their attributes:

Bear – Strength, courage, leadership

Buffalo – Sacred life source, abundance, provision

Deer – Gentleness, sensitivity, intuition

Eagle – Divine spirit messenger, great vision and power

Horse – Stamina, mobility, respect for animals

Raven – Trickster, cleverness, transformer

Snake – Cycles, rebirth, patience, stealth

Spider – Creativity, wisdom, interconnectedness

Turtle – Self-reliance, persistence, long life

Wolf – Loyalty, communication, teacher

Patterns & Designs

Recurring patterns and designs in Native American jewelry also convey symbolic meaning:

Geometric shapes – Triangles, squares, zigzags – Represent balance, the physical world, connectedness

Crescent moons & curved lines – Femininity, goddess energy, cycles of nature

Lightning, arrows, spears – Masculinity, protection, warrior strength

Step patterns – Lifecycle, harmony with nature, traveling through seasons and stages

Running rivers & waves – Movement, vitality, spirit energy, life-giving water

Corn – Sustenance, earth mother, continuity between ancest

Kokopelli – Fertility, abundance, trickster spirit of music & dance

Swirls & spirals – Serpents, whirlwinds, growth, spiritual energy

Crosses – Balance of elements, cardinal directions, Christianity influences

Sun & stars – Light, illumination, constancy, celestial powers

Regional Styles

Tribe/Region Jewelry Style & Symbolism
Navajo Intricate silverwork, turquoise, coral, shell. Harmony, beauty, life protection.
Zuni Delicate inlay, turquoise animals, shell motifs. Reverence for creatures.
Hopi Overlaid silver, polished stones, minimalist. Spiritual balance, growth.
Dine Channel inlay, buckles, silver coins. Prosperity, success, prestige.
Apache Bold collars, deer motifs,metal overlay. Courage, resilience, adaptability.
Cherokee River cane, beadwork, nature motifs. Wisdom, Earth connection, tradition.
Great Lakes Copper, freshwater pearls, etched shells. Water, community, ancestry.
Eastern Woodlands Wampum, carved bones, feathers. Honor, diplomacy, tribal history.
Northwest Coast Totem figures, abalone, copper. Mythology, seafaring culture, eclectic.

Regional styles showcase local materials and cultural influences. But universal Native American beliefs about nature, spirituality, and community underpin jewelry symbolism.

Dating & Identifying Native American Jewelry

Dating and identifying Native American jewelry requires examining multiple clues:

Materials – Natural materials indicate older pieces before European trade. Machine-cut stones and uniform beads suggest mass production.

Techniques – Hand-wrought silver indicates traditional methods versus casting. Look for tool marks, hand-cut stones, overlay/inlay.

Hallmarks – Signed pieces help date and authenticate. Hallmarks include Zuni needles, Navajo IG or GB marks, Hopi silversmith initials.

Design motifs – Simple geometric patterns are older than more elaborate figurative motifs influenced by European tastes.

Wear – Heavily worn, imperfect jewelry with patina suggests great age and hand crafting. Pristine condition implies newer manufacture.

Attachments – Simple loops, tie/sinew bindings are older than soldered pins and manufactured fittings.

Provenance – Knowing origins from a reputable seller or documentation aids authentication. Family-owned older pieces have more value.

Analyzing these elements helps determine if Native American jewelry is a new imitation or a true antique carrying the symbolic legacy of America’s first peoples.

The Evolution of Native American Jewelry

Native American jewelry has evolved greatly over the centuries:

Pre-Contact Era – Simple pendants, beads, bones, shells. Local natural materials. Low-tech wood, bone, stone tools. Tribal styles prevail.

Post-Contact Era – European beads/metals introduced via trade. Adornment increases. New technology like loom weaving adopted. Melding of indigenous + foreign elements.

1850s-1900 – Southwest railroad expansion. Traders bring coins, metals, new tools. Navajo silversmithing takes off. Turquoise use increases. Classic regional styles emerge.

1900s – Growth of tourism. Rising popularity of Native arts. Use of refined metals/materials. lapidary techniques. Commercialization grows. Signature jewelry arises.

1940s-today – Native American Renaissance. Revitalization of tradition + identity. Highly skilled contemporary jewelers. Continued innovation + individual expression.

Thus while constantly evolving, Native American jewelry retains deep symbolic ties to history, culture, spirituality. It tells the ongoing story of talented indigenous artists.


Native American jewelry is rich in cultural symbolism, materials, and technique. Each unique piece connects the wearer to centuries of indigenous beliefs, values, stories, and lived experiences. From turquoise bracelets to Zuni fetishes, Native jewelry celebrates the long heritage and artistic vision of North America’s first peoples. Althoughstyles and methods have evolved, Native jewelry remains at its heart an expression of tribal identity, spirit, and shared connection to the natural world.